Celebrating 40 years of Full Diplomatic Relations between UK and Holy See

A Mass presided over by the Vatican Secretary of State marks the 40th anniversary of Full Diplomatic Relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See on 29 March. Ambassador Christopher Trott reflects on the significance of this unique relationship and on his hopes for the years to come.

By Linda Bordoni

“It’s a sort of a 40th birthday party,” Ambassador Christopher Trott said, noting that one of his colleagues had “pointed out that life begins at forty,” a good time, perhaps to work, even more, to make the relationship more mature.

The relationship the Ambassador to the Holy See is talking about is that between the Holy See and the United Kingdom, which has enjoyed full diplomatic relations for 40 years, and is marking the occasion on 29 March with a Mass presided over by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

Ambassador Trott came to Vatican Radio on the eve of the anniversary to talk about the history of the relationship, about the importance of diplomatic relations with the Holy See in world affairs, and about his hopes (and projects) for the future. This is what he said:

Listen to the interview with Ambassador Christopher Trott

Ambassador Christopher Trott: It’s the 40th anniversary of the appointment of a full ambassador, in 1982. This was the first British ambassador to the Holy See, or of any ambassador from the United Kingdom to the Holy See, since the 1540s. There had been ambassadors before the Reformation but obviously, there had been a long pause, and although we restarted diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1914, we only restarted our relationship at an ambassadorial level - so an appointment of an ambassador here and of a nuncio in London- in 1982 after 450 years of pause.

Linda Bordoni: You were explaining to me the reason for celebrating, with a Mass, in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls...

It's interesting. I discovered that there is a connection between St. Paul's and the British Crown that obviously predates the Reformation. So just as the French have a connection with, I think it's  San Giovanni, and the Spanish have a link with Santa Maria Maggiore, there was traditionally a link between the British Crown and St. Paul's Outside the Walls; Henry VIII, I think, was a Canon or an Honorary Canon of St. Paul's, just as the French King was, or the Spanish King was, [at their relative Basilicas] until obviously the split between the English Church and Rome.

What would you say have been some of the milestones of these past 40 years?

Obviously, there have been some milestones that you look at it purely in terms of the bilateral relationship. There has been St John Paul II’s pastoral visit to the UK in 1982, followed by Benedict XVI’s state visit to the UK in 2010. These are obviously very important moments in the bilateral relationship. Coming the other way, Her Majesty the Queen actually came to Rome for the first time as a princess in 1951, so she's been here a number of times, and I think has met five or six Popes during her lifetime. Obviously, her coming to the Vatican also is extremely important, but I actually would rather focus on the results of this growing bilateral relationship, on the work that we've done together on tackling some of the scourges of the 21st century: modern slavery, human trafficking, the work that we did together on raising the profile of climate change. I think for me, these are much more important in terms of having a real-world impact alongside some of the work that we are doing in trying to promote peace. Obviously, that's particularly relevant right now for Europe, but we've been working on initiatives looking at peace in different contexts in Africa in the past - in South Sudan, in Cameroon, in Mozambique – we’ve talked about the role of the Church in promoting peace alongside some of the other values or issues that we're looking at. So there's a range of things that I'd like to highlight.

One of those areas is that of nuclear deterrence, right?

I think that the issue of tackling the arms race, tackling the element of nuclear weapons is important. Clearly, the Vatican has a slightly different understanding of where we can realistically get to in terms of "denuclearizing" the world. I think the important thing for us at the moment is to ensure that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is strengthened and is able to guarantee that these things don't spread beyond where they are already. We are also committed, in the long term, to disarmament, which is something that the Pope is calling for again, in the context of Ukraine, but we do not feel that the world is quite ready yet for disarmament, and I think that what's going on in Ukraine sadly proves the risk that the world faces to asymmetric disarmament, which is something that I feel is being exploited right now, the risk of asymmetric design.

Would you say that work is going forward in this area at this moment?

Discussions are always going on, there's nothing detailed going on right now, but there is a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference due to take place this year. The context of it is going to be very difficult, these talks have not moved forward as quickly as we would have wanted in the past, so to say that I'm anticipating major progress this year is not true. I don't think that will be very easy, but I think that the dialogue must continue, and the voice of the Holy Father particularly, in reminding us of the moral importance, imperative of making progress, is very useful.

You said earlier that perhaps the main role of your mandate here is to promote the role of religion in diplomacy for the common good...

Yes, I think it's important for those States whose outlook is more secular in a way, to recognise that while we might make our judgments in a secular way, there are a lot of States and a lot of people that make their decisions based on their faith. Working in partnership with countries or people for whom faith is a key element in their decision-making, is an important factor in being able to try and achieve some of the really difficult issues that we are trying to tackle today, both in terms of the post-covid world, and in terms of tackling poverty, the Sustainable Development Goals, education, health for all. These are issues that we need to ensure the world comes together to address, and you can address those through faith as well as in a sort of more secular way.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the UK the role of faith in the public space was very relevant...

I think that's very important, and my government is also organising a big conference this year in which we hope the Vatican will participate, perhaps not as a member, but we are organizing a Freedom of Religion or Belief conference. There's a sort of alliance of countries that's trying to ensure that we protect people's right to believe in something or to have a faith, and there are now 30 or 40 different countries that are part of this initiative. We are hosting them in July and I hope that the Holy See will send a representative, at least to be an observer in that discussion.

What are we celebrating on 29 March? It is a celebration isn't it?

It is a celebration! It’s a sort of a 40th birthday party, and one of my colleagues pointed out that life begins at forty, so perhaps we should be making the most of this and I'm looking at how we make our relationship more mature. I think a symbol of that is the fact that in the next few months we are moving both our embassy and my residence much closer to the Vatican, just down the road from where we are sitting now, which will make us more accessible to our friends from the Vatican and hopefully raise our profile here in this part of Rome, raise our visibility so that will be also something that we can celebrate.

Thank you very much, is there anything else you'd like to say regarding the anniversary?

It’s always a pleasure for an ambassador to have the pleasure to celebrate a milestone like this. I know there was a celebration for the 30th anniversary, we had Ministers that came out last time, but in the context of covid and then with the crisis in Ukraine, we’re slightly scaling back the event, or the commemoration, but the Mass is important and marking the occasion is important. We are very honoured that Cardinal Parolin has agreed to officiate at the Mass tomorrow morning, so I'm just looking forward to celebrating and looking forward to the next 40 years.

28 March 2022, 17:29